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"Stay close by," Jenna Monroe called out to her wards frolicking in the ankle-deep surf. Seated on an old beach blanket on the section of dry sand butting up to the water, she had a clear view of the twin girls. Tropical Storm Harry had passed through a few days earlier, leaving the weather unsettled. The forecast today called for patchy sunshine to break through the cloud cover and overall conditions slowly returning to normal.
The two scamps insisted they knew how to swim, but Jenna hadn't lived with the ten-year-olds long enough to trust their credibility. Despite the fact that Jenna had known them since birth, she wasn't up to speed on every detail of their lives. Still, swimming seemed to be big on their favorites list. After three days of unpacking and staying indoors due to rain and gusty wind, the girls had begged to come to the beach. Jenna agreed because they all could use a dose of fresh air. In reality, they needed so much more than that, but for now, the beach would have to do.
Her good friend Nealy Grainger, whom she'd met and worked with in LA, had recently moved back to Florida. Jenna and the girls had needed a change of scenery and at Nealy's suggestion, packed up and made the move from LA to Cypress Pointe. It had been exhausting, mainly because it happened so quickly. Digging her toes in the damp sand, Jenna leaned back on her elbows and took a breath. The first in months, it seemed. One minute she'd been busy filming Jenna's Cozy Cooking and making guest appearances as a television chef on various daytime talk shows, the next she'd been listening to the horrible phone call informing her of the death of her best friend, Carrie.
Right on the heels of that devastating news came the reading of the will, when Jenna learned she had custody of the twins since their father had signed away his rights after their birth. Had it only been six months ago? What a whirlwind. She still couldn't get a handle on all the life-changing events. Settling in to this new chapter of her life would take time, but she'd make it work, for Carrie's legacy and the girls' future.
Keeping an eagle eye on Bridget and Abigail, Abby for short, proved a challenge as they darted in and out of the rolling, thigh-high waves. Jenna had always been a stickler for safety, but with custody of two young girls, her untapped maternal instincts materialized daily.
"Aren't you coming in?" Abby yelled as Bridget waved her arm in invitation.
"In a minute," Jenna answered, wiggling her toes in the cool sand.
Giggles resounded over the surf. There hadn't been a free moment since they arrived in town a few days earlier. The cross-country move had been taxing and she took advantage of this rare opportunity to clear her mind. The closest they'd come to the beach was when they'd cruised by the public access before arriving at the rental house. First chore, unpacking, then registering for school. Clothes shopping had been slated next, but was interrupted by the tropical storm, which kept them inside and going stir-crazy. When the girls double-teamed her this afternoon, coming up with every reason imaginable to hit the beach, Jenna hadn't argued. She'd been so busy with her career, then settling in with the girls, she couldn't remember the last time she took time to play. Besides, they all needed to work off their excess energy.
The beach here in Cypress Pointe was beautiful. Puffy clouds, rolling along in the swift air currents, swirled a murky gray in the sky, tossing Jenna's short, pixie-cut hair. Meager bursts of sunlight occasionally brightened up what started as a gloomy day. This morning, the temperature hovered in the mideighties before steadily rising to the sticky ninety-degree dog days of August. Humidity topped the charts. All part of living in Florida, Nealy assured her when Jenna complained. Just another aspect of her new life.
Going from a single, independent career woman to a new mother at twenty-nine had created a huge learning curve. Oh, she loved the girls, no doubt about it. After these months together, she couldn't imagine life without them. Still, she was plagued with doubts. Could she do this, especially while they were still grieving Carrie's sudden death? Could she love the girls as much as their mother had? Fill the void of their mother's absence? Carrie had been awesome with the girls. Could Jenna do the same?
A few other children joined the twins, probably also needing a break after being indoors for days. This would be the first chance for the girls to make friends. Jenna crossed her fingers.
As the two started moving out deeper, Jenna straightened and yelled, "Hey, come closer to the water's edge." Bridget, the more adventurous of the two, jumped about in the choppy surf. She grabbed her sister's hand and shuffled back.
Jenna let out a breath. Would her life always be like this, worrying about every little detail of her charges' lives? She thought she'd left her worries and insecurities behind once she'd aged out of the foster system. Apparently not.
Thankfully, the girls followed Jenna's command. The wave swell was nowhere near as strong as on the California coast where she grew up. For right now, insisting the girls stay in the shallow surf eased her concerns.
Rolling her shoulders, she rested on her elbows again, turning her attention to the panorama. To her left was the marina where boats bobbed in the restless waves. Maybe a nice family outing would take the girls' minds off leaving the only home they'd ever known.
To her right, far off in the distance, she could barely make out the Grand Cypress Hotel. She'd taken the girls there for dinner the first night they'd arrived in town at the urging of Nealy, whose boyfriend owned the hotel and restaurant. Jenna wanted the twins to meet the woman who suggested they move to this coastal Florida town to get away from sad memories and a certain tabloid reporter determined to make her life miserable.
Bridget ran out of the water, a bright smile on her usually serious face. "Jenna, can we build a castle?"
"Of course." She dug into the bag of beach toys she'd stopped to purchase on the way there. "Make it a princess castle," she added, handing Bridget the shovels and sand molds. The girls were in a princess phase, which meant begging for new dolls and sparkly accessories to go with them.
"Okay. Just watch how special it'll be." Bridget ran back to her sister, handing over a shovel to Abby. Soon they were both digging in the soupy sand.
A strong tug of affection squeezed Jenna's heart as she watched them play.
For weeks they'd been despondent, to the point where Jenna decided to get counseling. It had helped, even though the girls still had times when they didn't want to talk or be around other people.
High-pitched shrieks sounded as the two playfully threw sand at each other, abandoning the toys to rush back into the water. So much for the castle.
Encouraged by their carefree play, Jenna watched the girls act like children instead of the mere shadows they'd been for weeks on end. Yes, this move was good. Necessary even.
Back in LA, when she first started appearing on television, a tabloid reporter named Rod Hartley turned his attention to her when he searched for stories about rising celebrities in the entertainment industry. As tenacious as a bulldog when hunting a story, he'd discovered Jenna when the network she worked for dubbed her America's Sweetheart Chef to increase ratings.
New to the world of celebrities, and flabbergasted by the attention since she only had a cable cooking show, Jenna couldn't fathom Rod's interest. At first, she was flattered. Rod could often be charming, flirty even, but as time went by, she got a weird vibe whenever he was around.
Jenna shivered at the memory, reaching into the beach tote for the baggie filled with carrots. Nibbling on good, crunchy food tended to calm her. She dumped a few into her hand and tossed the baggie on the towel beside her. Munching away, she continued to watch the twins while she thought about LA
For a while, Rod pretended to be a neighbor, although he was vague about where he lived, exactly. He always happened to be in the neighborhood at the same time she was, popping up every place she went. Soon, his excuses of coincidence became thin. Years spent in foster homes had sharpened her senses and her senses screamed something was seriously off with this guy.
When the girls came into her life, he became fixated on them as well. She didn't understand why until her agent uncovered the truth about him. Rod had lost his wife and children to his obsession over his career. Now that obsession included Jenna.
The final straw came when he camped in his SUV outside the office building where Jenna and the girls met a counselor for grief therapy. His exploits were already invasive enough, but this time he chased after them in the SUV as they hurried to their parked car. In their haste to get away, Abby had darted out into the road and was nearly run down by Rod as he tried to snap pictures.
His actions were a clear sign to Jenna. She couldn't let anything like this happen again so she filed for, and won, a temporary restraining order. The girls were so badly shaken up, it was days before they would venture outside again. If Jenna hadn't needed to get to work, she would have stayed inside with them but instead called a sitter to watch them while she went to the studio.
The situation got worse when Rod drove by her apartment after receiving the legal order. Jenna was getting into her car when she noticed the SUV. She squared her shoulders, not about to let Rod see how much he'd upset her life, and glared at him.
To her dismay, he merely smiled, even as she read the anger in his eyes. "This isn't over," he'd threatened, then peeled out of the complex. Jenna sank against the car, her knees like jelly.
Her mind was so caught up in reliving that terrifying final encounter with Rod that she almost didn't notice two seagulls steadily making their way toward the bag of carrots. "Shoo." She waved her hands at the birds, startling them into flight while she tucked the food away.
After that incident with Rod, Jenna called Nealy to vent. Her friend had moved away from LA, and Jenna missed not being able to drop in on her. At some point in the conversation, Nealy suggested Jenna pack up the girls and come to Florida during the hiatus from filming her cooking show. Nealy had spoken fondly about her hometown, and gone so far as producing a list of pros in favor of moving.
Why not, Jenna thought. A change would benefit the girls greatly, and once away from LA, Jenna could decide where their future lay. If they liked Cypress Pointe enough, maybe they'd stay here for good. Within two weeks, she'd packed up and moved to the other side of the country, hoping she'd made the right choice. Jenna smiled, watching the girls dance carefree in the surf, their dark braids, so like Carrie's long, brunette hair, swinging over their shoulders. Even their smiles reminded Jenna of her best friend, adding a touch of mischief to their play. They were so like their mother when she was having a good time. This was just what they needed, to play like the children they were, not two daughters who grieved their mother who'd been killed in a freeway crash. Yes, there would still be many sorrowful days ahead, but Jenna would gladly do all the worrying and heavy emotional lifting for her best friend's children.
The girls waved at her before continuing to splash each other. Jenna laughed and waved back, getting comfortable again as she watched the girls play.
Out of the corner of her eye, a solitary figure, followed closely by a golden retriever, strolled into view. A man with his hands shoved in his shorts pockets. The breeze blew against his T-shirt, a baseball cap obscured his face. She wondered if he too had grown stir-crazy and longed to be outside. He stopped to pick something up from the sand and tossed it into the churning water. The object, a shell or rock maybe, arced high into the air and splashed with a plink. When the dog started into the water to retrieve the item, the man called out a sharp command. The dog barked and ran circles in the surf.
Seeing this man all alone struck a chord in Jenna. Probably because she'd spent most of her childhood by herself. She'd survived the foster system, but memories of missing her mother and wishing for a permanent home had never left her.
She shook off the negative thoughts. Today was all about getting away from sadness and enjoying themselves for a little while. Seeing the girls happy, she shoved her cares aside and gave her imagination free rein to conjure up a life for the man standing in the surf, staring into the horizon. Usually pragmatic and focused, she gave in to her fanciful musings.
Since he came from the direction of the marina, he might be a boat captain, his first day back from a round-the-world cruise. He had no family since he traveled extensively. And he had a thing for petite blonde women.
She shook her head at the flight of fancy. Right. It had been way too long since she'd been on a date. Even before she gained custody of the girls, she'd been too busy with her career for a social life. Made the mistake of falling for a man who claimed he'd loved her, only to dump her as easily as he said those three words. A mystery man held more appeal than men she met in real life.
Taking another cleansing breath, she savored the briny air and the feel of the cool sand between her toes. Calm settled over her and she closed her eyes for a moment.
Until she heard a scream. Eyes wide, she jumped up, spotting Abby at the shoreline, pointing to the water. Bridget was nowhere in sight. Freezing momentarily, Jenna came to her senses when Abby cried out again. She scrambled forward, the sand shooting out from under her feet as she sped toward the area Abby indicated. She'd just reached the little girl when a man streaked past her, running through the surf before diving into deeper water.
Jenna headed toward the waves, ready to wade, or swim, or whatever, to get to Bridget, when the mystery man emerged from the water, a coughing child in his arms. He floated to a shallower area, then stood and trudged toward land. Abby remained rigid by Jenna's side, her small hand gripping Jenna's like a vise.
The dog jumped and barked like crazy, following his master.
"Is she okay?" Jenna croaked through the fear lodged in her throat.